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The NSPA Blog

Cold or Flu or COVID-19?

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Posted on October 1st, 2020 by Bettina Carlson, under Infections, Tips & Resources

It’s cold and flu “season” again. Yet this year it is quite unique with COVID-19 still being part of our lives, and its symptoms similar to those of the cold and the flu, which is likely to cause us more uncertainties and great concern as to a sneeze or sniffle or cough we may experience – is it COVID-19? 

As a cautious approach, and to boost our confidence in case we are experiencing any respiratory illness symptoms, let’s revisit some of the information we know about the cold, flu, and COVID-19. Education is empowering.  

What are the symptoms?

The basic symptoms are similar for either the cold, flu or COVID-19: sore throat, runny nose, cough. However, there are distinctive differences. 

A cold creeps upon us. At first one doesn’t feel too well, “a bit under the weather,” with a scratchy throat, and maybe slightly tired. We still have at least some appetite and we still feel good enough to go about our daily routines. But a few days later, a runny nose and a cough sets in. We may have a mild temperature. 

Flu, on the other hand, hits us like a train. We feel weak and beat almost immediately, often with strong headaches and body aches. Our throats are sore to the point that swallowing becomes difficult and very painful. A cough will be dry. We don’t necessarily experience a runny nose. A fever can get up to 104 degrees very quickly. Generally, we are contagious from 1 day before symptom onset to about 7 days into it.

COVID-19 is a bit more tricky, we could develop symptoms as soon as a day after infection or it could take a few more days. The CDC currently says that we could develop symptoms between 1-4 days. We could be asymptomatic and not experience any symptoms, or we could experience a range of symptoms from mild to severe. COVID-19 shares many of the same symptoms as the cold and the flu. The currently known tell-tale symptom that differentiates COVID-19 from the other two infections is a change in or the loss of smell or taste! How long we are contagious is not clear at this point. It is believed that we can spread the virus for about 2 days before experiencing signs or symptoms and remain contagious for at least 10 days after signs or symptoms first appeared.

How long we will be sick, depends greatly on our immune systems. As we age and with potential comorbidities, our immune systems wane and leave us more vulnerable to complications; also, an infection is likely to take longer before we feel better again.

With COVID-19 we have learned that older adults and people who have severe underlying medical conditions like heart or lung disease, diabetes, or obesity seem to be at higher risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19 infection.

With a regular cold, we will generally feel better within a few days and our symptoms will have completely disappeared after two weeks. We may not need medical care. However, if we experience the following symptoms, we should see a care provider:  

• Change in or loss of smell or taste!!

• A high or returning fever.

• Intense ear or throat aches – these could be symptoms of an ear infection or strep throat.

• Difficulties breathing – this could be a sign of bronchitis or pneumonia.

• Extreme fatigues or lethargy.

• Persistent coughing or hoarseness of voice that lasts past two weeks – this could be a sign of bronchitis or pneumonia.

• Any symptoms that last longer than two weeks.

• And when in doubt, always seek medical feedback!

How do we get infected? 

 The cold, flu, and COVID-19 are all caused by viruses. 

For the cold, we know over 200 different viruses that can cause an infection (for example Rhino-, Adeno-, Coronaviruses). The cold is more common than the flu and can vary in severity from mild to flu-like.

The flu is caused by influenza viruses. Those are more dangerous than the cold viruses because they constantly mutate and any previous antibodies our immune systems may have built are ineffective with each new strain. This is also what makes developing a matching vaccine extremely challenging.

COVID-19 is caused by infection with a new coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2. 

In order to get infected, we need to be exposed to the virus. This happens in one of two ways. 

One, via droplet spread. An infected person spreads the droplets when they sneeze, cough, or talk. Another person will “catch” these droplets by inhaling them with their nose or mouth, and they will settle on the mucus membranes of our respiratory tract where they will multiply.

Two, through direct physical contact with an infected person, such as a handshake. But also through indirect exposure such as touching door handles, grocery carts, phones after those were touched by an infected person.

How can we protect ourselves from an infection?

Flu shots are encouraged this time of year, talk to your doctor to find out which one is recommended for you. Unfortunately, they don’t provide us with 100 percent protection. The efficacy varies from year to year depending on how well it matches the circulating influenza strain. 

So it is important that, with or without a flu shot, we utilize other measures of protections available to us. Luckily, those are readily available. And six months into life with COVID-19, we surely must be experts at the following behavioral changes to keep an infection at bay or lessen the impact of an infection:

• Wear a mask and don’t touch our faces! Since we have a tendency to touch our face hundreds of times a day, to adjust glasses, to move a strand of hair out of our face, to scratch an itch, and more; it is clear how easily we can transport a virus into our respiratory system and invite infection. So – don’t do it! Easier said than done, yes; but keep reminding ourselves! 

• Wash our hands! Continue to wash them frequently. And if we have been around a person with cold or flu symptoms, wash them immediately. 

• Keep our distance. Especially to those we know or suspect to be “under the weather!”

• By the way, when we sneeze, we spread thousands of droplets in a radius of about 6 feet. So, it is important to cover our sneeze! And we don’t want to sneeze into our hands and make them tools of spreading the virus through handshakes or touching surfaces, so please be mindful and careful to sneeze into your elbow or a tissue. If a sneeze happens while we wear our masks, it might be wise to change into a clean mask after the sneeze. (And wash our hands.)

• Boost our immune systems! Eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables to nourish our bodies with a wide variety of vitamins and minerals makes a vital difference. If we worry about getting enough vitamins and minerals, we can take supplements accordingly to our needs. Particularly Vitamins C and Vitamin D are great immune boosters. Dr. Fauci recently shared that he supplements with Vitamins D and C to boost his immune system. (https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/14/supplements-white-house-advisor-fauci-takes-every-day-to-help-keep-his-immune-system-healthy.html)


A strong immune system can help keep the cold, flu, and possibly COVID-19 away and a healthy person cannot spread illness! Remember there are no quick fixes and or magic pills! Aside from the basic and vital measures discussed above, educate yourself about the choices available to support your immune system! They are as individual as each of us and our circumstances and needs. Make your choices well informed and wisely, because your choices can keep you healthy, and others at the same time!! Now, if that is not empowering!

For more information on immune support, please read our Blog Post from last year, which discusses the flu and immune support. Click here: https://www.northshorern.com/the-dreaded-flu-and-immune-support/

For more information on the differences between Flu and COVID-19, please read this overview by the CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/flu-vs-covid19.htm

References and Sources

CDC. Similarities and Differences between the Flu and COVID-19. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/flu-vs-covid19.htm

National Institutes of Health. Understanding a Common Cold Virus. vhttps://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/understanding-common-cold-virus

CNBC. The supplement Dr. Fauci takes to help keep his immune system healthy. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/14/supplements-white-house-advisor-fauci-takes-every-day-to-help-keep-his-immune-system-healthy.html

NSPA Blog Post. The Dreaded Flu and Immune Support. https://www.northshorern.com/the-dreaded-flu-and-immune-support/

Teri’s Corner

“What If” COVID Planning for On-Campus College Students. Collegiate Parent. https://www.collegiateparent.com/wellness/covid-planning-for-on-campus-college-students/

Thinking about a pet? Senior Planet. https://seniorplanet.org/thinking-about-a-pet/

When mom or dad can no longer live alone. Daily Herald. https://www.dailyherald.com/entlife/20200906/when-mom-or-dad-can-no-longer-live-alone

Weight, health, and avoiding the ‘COVID 15’. Daily Herald. https://edition.pagesuite.com/popovers/dynamic_article_popover.aspx?artguid=a8c9b8c6-5833-42a0-8998-378d15720cd0&appid=1031

How to make the most of telehealth visits. Daily Herald. https://www.dailyherald.com/entlife/20200711/how-to-make-the-most-of-telehealth-visits

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